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'The Lone Ranger' And Why It Matters To Indian Country

Walt Disney Pictures

With charges of racism, abysmal reviews, and allegations that Disney barred Native American reporters from covering the film, "The Lone Ranger" is turning out to be a remarkable train wreck of bad decisions.

The most recent problem? The movie's weekend box office take. Opening on July 3, it's estimated "The Lone Ranger" has grossed about $48.9 million in ticket sales after its five-day opening weekend in the U.S., and grabbed another $24.3 million internationally. The cost to make the film? More than $200 million. Between the budget and the take home, the film is quickly earning the title "flop." 

But before "The Lone Ranger" rode into theaters, there was another controversial issue: how would the film portray Tonto, the famous Native American sidekick in the film. Over the years there have been many debates over how Native Americans are represented in film. Those debates can be seen in essays and in documentaries, like "Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian," which explores how cinema's view of Native Americans has served to educate - for better or worse, usually worse - the world's perception of Natives Americans.


In the case of the new Tonto, this debate has shown no signs of wearing down. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations points out that, while Tonto is a fictional character, his character is consistent with a long list of stereotypes that overshadow the critical issues Native people actually face in America.

"How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can’t–and that, to me, is why Tonto matters."

Then there is the issue of media coverage of the film. In New Mexico, Native America Calling and National Native News have both reported on the film. But in the run-up to the film's release, producers at Disney seemed to exclude ethnic media from their extensive press junkets on the film. In a commentary published by the online news organization New Mexico in Depth by Sarah Gustavus, executive producer for both shows, claims repeated requests for interviews or press access were never answered.

"It was a complete surprise to learn on Monday that a major press junket was taking place only an hour from our studios, in Santa Fe. We were not invited, but immediately requested press credentials. Our staff received a response from Disney after the press conference saying we could not be accommodated for the event because it was over."

According to accounts from other outlets, more than 300 journalists were slated to cover the event, but none were Native American. This seeming exclusion of Native reporters in New Mexico alone led to the Native American Journalists Association issuing a statement:

"NAJA has always strived for the inclusion of diversity in media. With "The Lone Ranger" featuring a prominent actor portraying a Native American, in a film largely shot on Native land, we are left with two answers to why tribal media has not been involved in coverage: Disney forgot to reach out to Native reporters, or Disney purposefully ignored Native reporters. Both possibilities raise additional, troubling questions."

(Full disclosure: I serve as board member for NAJA and helped draft this letter)

Shortly after the NAJA media alert, reporters from National Native News, Native America Calling and Indian Country Today bloggers received access to the red carpet event in Los Angeles, but were not allowed to see the film.

The film's producers may have barred Native reporters from covering aspects of the film initially, but apparently did mount an "aggressive campaign of outreach and ass-covering" to insulate themselves from charges or racial insensitivity. That's according to an article in Mother Jones on how Disney dealt with racism accusations.

"A special premiere was held in the capital of the Comanche Nation, with leaders of Comanche Nation, Navajo Nation, the National Congress of American Indians, and Americans for Indian Opportunity in attendance. (These individuals did not respond to Mother Jones' requests for comment.) Proceeds from a motorcycle auction and a $1,000-per-ticket gala event at Disneyland went toward the American Indian College Fund."

But are any of these factors in why the film is tanking? Probably not. While "The Lone Ranger" has managed to ignite debate over how Native Americans are represented in media and the impact those representations have on the public, the real problem seems to be the movie itself. Here's a line from David Edelstein's review:

"In this movie, Tonto's people are victims of murderous colonialists — men who run railroads through their native lands and kill off resistance. And what's sold as a broad comedy that reunites Depp with his Pirates of the Caribbean director, Gore Verbinski, features massacres of Native American tribes. The movie is exhaustingly bad, but bad in ways you can't imagine in advance."

Edelstein's final thought: "It's like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, adapted into a Disney theme park ride."